Korean director Park Chan-wook has become a cult figure with “Oldboy” and his subsequent films, which have earned him a devoted—some would say rabid—international following. So it was probably inevitable that he should take on an English-language project. It’s just too bad that it’s “Stoker,” a tale of a madman named Charlie and his niece that its screenwriter, actor Wentworth Miller, clearly designed as a homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s “Shadow of a Doubt” but that, at least as realized by Park, is certainly a visual marvel but lacks the nightmarish logic that would keep it from seeming insufferably affected and pretentious.
The plot is essentially a simple coming-of-age story with macabre overtones. India (Mia Wasikowska) is an introverted, somber high school student whose already fragile state of mind is further buffeted by the death of her father (Dermot Mulroney) in an auto accident. But there soon appears at the family’s remote estate the hitherto absent Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), a handsome but strangely sinister fellow whose intense gaze seems to be directed equally at his niece and her mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman), a coolly distant woman with obvious emotional needs beneath her icy exterior. Charlie, it seems, has been travelling the world for years but has now returned to meet his family responsibilities.
While both India and Evelyn are attracted to him in their different ways, however, Charlie’s presence brings far more ambiguous reactions from others—the family’s long-time housekeeper (Phyllis Somerville) and India’s aunt Gwendolyn (Jacki Weaver), for example—and their abrupt disappearances foster the suspicion, engendered at his very first appearance by his oddly intense manner, that something’s not entirely right with the guy. And it’s made clear fairly quickly that the suspicion is well-founded, not only because of the older women’s sudden departures but how Charlie intervenes when India attracts the attention of rebellious classmate Whip (Alden Ehrenreich, from the recent “Beautiful Creatures”) on one of her nocturnal outings. The peculiar goings-on eventually attract the interest of the local sheriff (Ralph Brown). When the truth about Uncle Charlie’s past is finally revealed, it explains a good deal about what’s happening in the present, including the trajectory India’s life takes.
As with “Shadow of a Doubt,” the essence of “Stoker” lies in a young girl’s longings, but while Hitchcock gave his film a dreamy quality that was still grounded in the reality of small-town Santa Rosa, Park’s picture is a fever dream of repressed desires set in a comic-book world of bizarre, garish images, and marked by acting that’s deliberately wooden and arch and line-readings that sound as though they’re being spoken phonetically. The result has more in common with the brazen artificiality of Brian De Palma’s worst pseudo-Hitchcock exercises, pictures like “Body Double” or “Femme Fatale,” than the film it’s riffing on. It has style to burn, but by the halfway point you’re likely to be wishing that some of it had actually gone up in flames to allow for a hint of genuine emotion or psychological depth.
The acting is of a piece with Park’s vision—or more properly constrained by it. Wasikowska embodies the dour, blank sullenness of India all too well, and Goode brings to Charlie the mien of a handsome, steely-eyed zombie. Kidman hams it up more forcefully, though the character remains cartoonish, and Weaver, Mulroney and Ehrenreich add some welcome touches of humanity to the proceedings, but it’s far too little to make much of a difference. This is a film dominated by its look, and the contributions of production designer Therese De Prez, art director Wing Lee, set decorator Leslie Morales and costume designers Kurt Swanson and Bart Mueller are all top-drawer, and are masterfully showcased in cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung’s exquisite widescreen compositions. Clint Mansell’s spare score, which incorporates some Philip Glass piano pieces, adds to the mood.
But ultimately the gloss and neon color palette can’t conceal the vacuity that lies behind the succession of carefully-wrought images. Unlike “Shadow of a Doubt,” “Stoker” winds up as an emptily flamboyant explosion of style over substance.